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A glance behind the business of Denali National Park


I met Rhino on a Denali National Park safari bus. A dust cloud followed him and two friends as they climbed onto the bus with dirty packs slung over their shoulders. The three guys had been sharing the wide expanse of tundra below Polychrome pass with Caribou, Moose, and Grizzlies for the last two nights.  When they decided they had enough they climbed the pass to hail a ride. The bus was filled with an assortment of inland venturing cruisers, RVing couples, sight Plane riders, day hikers, and a few backpackers.

A steady blast of dust and grime had blown on the summer air through the open windows— hair was thick with it, clothes were gritty. I could taste dirt on my teeth.  A dull ache rooted itself in my legs and sprouted into my spine. I had spent the day trekking along the gravel bed of the Toklat River to the glacier melting in the distance. In the hour since I boarded at Toklat, the digital camera wielding riders had been granted photo permission by three golden eagles, a grizzly, and three caribou. Alaska’s wildlife is truly free, with over 365 million acres to roam.

The newcomers hunted for open seats on the converted school bus. Two ended up stranded towards the front next to a pair of Germans. Rhino sat closer to me. He and his friends, with their weathered appearance, had drawn attention from the tidy tourists, most who had been off the bus for no more than thirty minutes for short breaks at various scenic stops throughout the day. He answered a few questions about how long they had been out (two nights); whether they had seen any wildlife (a Caribou calf nursing from its mother); and if they were tired (they were).

Rhino and I began an intermittent conversation over the heads of a Texan Family between us.  I was seated next to the wife who smelled of perfume and held a Louis Vuitton purse on her lap. Rhinestones reflected sunlight from the seams of her parka. The dust laden air permeating the bus was balmy at seventy degrees.  Her teenage son and rather large husband sat behind me.

“We work in the park,” Rhino told me. “We try to get out here at least one night a week.”

I asked if employees got dibs on camping permits. Backcountry camping is free in Denali but permits are given to only a few hikers each day for sixteen vast zones throughout the park. The area around the Polychrome Glacier and the Plains of Murie (named for the famous wild life researcher Adolf Murie) are among the most popular and hard to get permitted areas.

“No, we have to get in line like everyone else.”  We continued to talk about his trip and I told him a bit about my hike around the Toklat River Valley. Before Rhino fell asleep, we agreed that Toklat and Polychrome were two of the most spectacular places in the park. Of course, these superlatives were based on limited access.  Travel in the park is unrestricted, but the road penetrates only ninety miles west from the park entrance and is accessible only on Aramark operated buses.  Denali National Park is twenty per cent larger than Massachusetts. No motorized vehicles (with the exception of the emission controlled buses) are allowed in the park, leaving feet and dogsled as the preferred mode of transport to remote areas.

When the bus stopped at the Teklanika overlook, passengers filed off to stretch cramped legs. Rhino awoke. When he stood I realized how tall and lanky he was. Brown hair snaked from his head in dusty curls. A tussock of whiskers hung from his chin. His eyes were bright and he smiled when he spoke. The rest of the passengers went to the lookout to have one last glance at the column of mountains standing on the opposite side of the Teklanika river valley. I stayed behind by the bus where Rhino was chatting with his friends and the bus driver, a tall, wide shouldered man named Nick. He spoke out of one side his mustache canopied mouth while rolling a cigarette from a pouch of Drum tobacco which he passed it off to Rhino without a word.

“I’m Rhino by the way,” he said extending his hand.

“Shitty,” said his bearded friend, and shook my hand.  The third disheveled hiker introduced himself as Adam.

“Man, you guys have cruel parents,” I said.  Nick laughed then sauntered over to chat with the driver of another bus that had just pulled in.

“No. Just great friends,” Shitty said. Rhino handed me the pouch of Tobacco.

“Why not,” I said, a non-smoker, and rolled my own cigarette.
 
Rhino, Shitty, and the conventionally named Adam, told me a little more about their weekend adventure. If it hadn’t been for Adam they would have been on an earlier bus to the worker’s dorms at the park entrance. A few hours after leaving camp Adam realized he had left his water filter behind. The trio threw done their packs and hiked back to camp to retrieve the valuable piece of gear. A few hours later, filter in hand, they couldn’t find the packs. Discovering them again took two more hours. After playing king of the hill on a slope of tundra the night before they had smoked a few joints.

Ten minutes later everyone was back on the bus and we were trailing a veil of dust for half a mile. Rhino, Shitty and Adam slept while the Germans and others ogled at every Caribou grazing on the plain. The Caribou were out in force. “Oh my god,” whined the Texan teenager behind me, “it’s just another Caribou people. Why are we stopping?” His voice was feminine and lacked the drawl of the rest of his family. He did not wear rhinestones like his mother, but he did tie a white sweater (gray now from the dust) around his neck.

“That’s a real beauty,” said his father ignoring his older son. “I reckon it would take all winter to eat him.” He turned to his youngest son seated at the window beside Rhino, “Imagine trying to pull him out of here without a four wheeler?” He winked at his son. “Not like when we tied your deer to the back of the Suzuki last year.” He paused for a moment and then said to the bus in general, “My son here shot his first deer just last year—only eight years old.” The mother looked at me and smiled with a mixture of pride and guilt.  Rhino awoke and raised eyebrow at me and humphed.

The Savage River Checkpoint sits at mile thirteen of the park road—the spot where gravel succumbs to pavement. Soon after we had passed this symbolic point that private vehicles are not allowed to pass, Nick brought the bus to a stop and let Rhino, Shitty, and Adam off near a massive garage the workers call the Bus Barn. Rhino gathered his gear and slung his pack over his shoulder, “Later tonight walk right up this road,” he pointed towards the Bus Barn hidden in the trees. “Past the barn there, that’s the Spike. Come up for some beers.”
 

I got off the bus at the Wilderness Access Center and said good-bye to my Rhinestone Texan seatmate and to Nick. I walked a half mile to the Riley Creek Campground, a 108 site behemoth filled with RV’s and weekend campers.  After a dinner of freeze dried food boiled over a camping stove, I walked to the Mercantile and paid four dollars for a shower—a steep price to bathe, but worth it to wash away the Earth and perspiration my body had collected over the last four days.

I went back to my site and sat alone by a fire of pine cones and deadwood collected on the banks of Riley Creek. At ten o’clock, with the sun still bright, I walked to the Spike. I passed the Bus Barn and all the workers inside cleaning the day’s dust from the fleet

Two Alaskan railway cars were tucked into the spruce trees with a deck protruding from one side. I had found the Golden Spike.  Music and laughter emanated from within the employee bar. I was supposed to have an employee I.D. to get in, but no asked for one.  The retired rail cars were crowded with young people sipping pints, dressed in tee-shirts and sandals. On the deck more Denali Bums soaked in the warmth of an Alaskan summer night. I found Rhino playing pool in the game room. Adam and Shitty were not around. I asked him if he wanted a beer. He and a few other summer toilers accepted my offer.

I returned with four glasses clenched carefully between my fingers and distributed them to nods of thanks. I wandered onto the deck where drinkers were talking and rolling cigarettes. I was soon absorbed into the conversation.

“So where do you work,” someone asked me.

“Nowhere,” I said. “I’m a tourist.”

“Really,’ he said. “We haven’t had any tourists here all summer.”

“Rhino invited me up,” I told him.

He laughed, “Of course he did. That’s just like Rhino.” He took a sip of his beer “He’s a great guy.”

After talking with him for awhile he told me I should come up to the park to work next summer. “You get some Alaska under your belt,” he said. “It’s good for you.”

Eventually Rhino came onto the deck. He introduced me to two guys who were talking about cars. One of them was named Scott; I recognized him as the cashier who had sold me my ticket for the bus. His friend was a lifelong Alaskan named John who told stories about his grandfather and the gold the old man had buried somewhere, but had neglected to make a map. Such legends of buried treasure are common in the backcountry of Alaska.

“You know my old man had that Gold Wing,” the car was the Mona Lisa to John.

“So are you going to inherit that thing when he dies?” John asked

“No way, Dad sold that car for a briefcase full of money. He buried it somewhere outback behind his cabin.” John gulped half his beer. Dirt, it seems, is the preferred method of investment banking in John’s family.

“So we’ll be out there with a shovel tearin’ it up?” Scott asked.

“Anyway,” John went on ignoring him, “he sold that car to a guy from Montana. He was supposed to drive it all the way home but he got pulled over somewhere in B.C. It was only his second day on the road. He was doing a hundred and twenty when they bagged him. So he called my dad and told him he was in the clink. You know what my dad did?’

“Asked him if the car was okay?” Scott asked.

“No. He wired bail to B.C. and told the guy to be careful with the damn car no matter what he did. ‘Don’t fuck her up.’ he said, and hung up the phone.”

“When the guy got back to Montana he sent my dad the bail times three, and Dad buried that out back too.”

Rhino introduced me to Caitlyn. She had lived in the Netherlands for six years in her teens before returning to her home in California. She, Rhino, and two others intended to rent a house in Girdwood for the winter and work at the ski resort. Girdwood is renowned as the once unknown bohemian capitol of Alaska

“I can’t think of three people I would rather live with,” she told me. She wore her light brown hair casually falling over her blue eyes. The breeze teased her white summer dress under a corduroy jacket. She was a modest starlet at the Spike. A fat man in a leather vest squeezed close to her while Caitlyn’s friend took a picture. She hugged him and he let out a moan of playful exultation. She laughed him off—
she was used to the flirtatious attention of this crowd.

“Where were you earlier,” Rhino asked her. He was one of the few guys at the bar who didn’t flirt with Caitlyn.

“We were over at the Princess,” Caitlyn replied. “Some guys kept buying us drinks.”

“I can never hang out there,” Rhino said. “They always kick me out.” The bar at the upscale Princess hotel in Glitter Gulch is for guests only. Caitlyn passed as someone who could afford the exorbitant prices. Rhino, with his scruffy beard, Indian weave pullover, and ripped jeans, did not.

“You want a beer?” Rhino asked me and then pointed a finger around at the group of people on the porch.  “You are way too drunk,” he said when his finger completed its circuit of friends and landed on Rachel, a short girl in a fur hooded parka much too big for her. Her father was visiting from Iowa for the week and was not too drunk. He nodded to Rhino’s offer. I nodded. Caitlyn declined. Rick accepted and resumed his conversation about cars and gold with Scott and John. Rhino returned a few minutes later, it was dollar beer night an occasion that made everyone generous.

The night wore away and the conversation in the warm summer air rolled on. The juke box echoed from within the bar. Cigarettes evaporated into the expanse of the Alaskan sky.

“I love rollies,” Rhino said. “There’s something about rolling your own smoke that’s Alaskan.” Rhino grew up in Detroit. This being his second summer in Alaska.

Caitlyn smiled and passed me her tobacco pouch, ‘Will you roll me one? I’m too drunk to do my own.’

We drank cheap beer late into the night. At some point Rhino tugged at my arm while I was engrossed with his roommate, Jaime, a rich kid from Scarsdale, New York who had repudiated his parents’ lifestyle and adopted the life of Alaska.

“Back to the dorm?” he said and winked. Caitlyn, Rick, Rhino, and I retreated to his room to indulge in semi-legal Alaskan horticulture.
 
The next morning I was heating my breakfast over a propane flame when a truck pulled up to the bathroom facility near my site.  Two figures emerged from the cab of the pick-up. One was Rhino, the other was Jaime. Rhino wandered over to my campsite. He and Jaime were on the campground cleanup crew. Their job included emptying the trash in the bathrooms and cleaning with disinfectant from a large industrial bottle.

“You missing a rain fly?”

“Why is there one over there?” I asked.

“No, I was making fun of your tarp.”

“That’s a twenty dollar Wal-mart special,” I said pointing to my tent. I had sealed the seams with polyurethane and covered the shelter with a three dollar blue tarp.

“Well, if it keeps you dry,” he said. I told him it did. “We’ll all be up at the Spike tonight. Come back up.”
 
I spent the day hiking in the Savage River valley.  I sat for a few moments thousands of miles from home atop a precipice that hung four hundred feet above the Savage River and gazed at the gray mountains and green flora in the distance.  I thought of how it had seemed incongruous to see American flags flying in Anchorage— Alaska is its own country.  I lingered for awhile and let the canyon wind rip through my hair.

Later, I ventured off trail through the tussock covered tundra. About two miles out I encountered a grizzly sow and her two cubs two hundred yards away. To my amazement, I felt no fear. They maneuvered gracefully over the harsh terrain of Alder and Willow brush, pocked with mossy holes and deep puddles. It had taken me an hour to cover two miles, stumbling all the way. The bears moved with lazy ease.

I made my way back to the road and caught the first bus that passed by.

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